Carbonara

Spaghetti alla carbonara

In Lazio, pasta, primi piatti by Frank28 Comments

My grandmother Angelina never made it, as far as I can recall, but as a long-time resident of Rome I have a great fondness for la carbonara, one of the iconic dishes of Roman cooking. Together with bucatini all’amatriciana, you’ll find it on just about every menu in town. And it’s a popular dish to make at home–quick and easy (once you get the hang of it) and very, very satisfying.

It may come as a surprise to some readers that the real carbonara does not contain cream. It’s a rustic, even rough, dish invented by and for common people, full of flavor but not exactly refined–and cream is not an ingredient that features in proletarian cooking, at least not in Rome and points further south in Italy. The other great misconception: real carbonara does not contain ham or prosciutto, either, but the lustier guanciale (cured pig’s cheeck) or pancetta (unsmoked Italian bacon). Nor are peas or other vegetables added to the sauce. It’s not clear why the dish got ‘lost in translation’ in other countries. My best guess is that the dish that is called ‘carbonara’ abroad has become confused with fettuccine alla papalina, a more ‘upscale’ version of carbonara that does contain prosciutto as well as—at least in some versions—peas and cream. The substitution of guanciale is understandable, as it is not easy to find outside Italy (or even in Italy, which is why pancetta is a common substitute) but it would be much more in the spirit of the dish to use bacon than ham or even prosciutto. There is really no such thing as a ‘carbonara sauce’ as such—the sauce for this pasta is an intrinsic part of the dish and cannot be made separately. And, finally: there is no such thing in Italian cookery as ‘chicken carbonara'; how that got started, God only knows.

In any event, on to the authentic recipe: At its most basic, carbonara is basically bacon and eggs with pasta. In most recipes, including that offered by the venerable Ada Boni, who was Roman and surely knew what she was doing, the eggs are cooked only by the heat of the spaghetti that is poured and mixed with them fresh from the pasta pot. But the operation can be tricky—if the pasta is not hot enough, or if too much pasta water clings to the pasta, the result can be a runny, unappetizing mess. And, of course, concerns about egg contamination these days make this way of making carbonara a bit risky, too. So, after years of experimenting with different methods, I’ve come up with my own technique.

Ingredients

Serves 4-6

  • 400-500g (14-16 oz)  spaghetti
  • 4-5 medium eggs
  • 250g (8 oz) grated pecorino romano cheese (or a combination of Parmesan and pecorino)
  • 250g (8 oz) guanciale or pancetta, cut into cubed
  • Olive oil (or lard)
  • Salt, to taste
  • Lots of freshly ground black pepper

Directions

Cook the spaghetti in abundantly salted water until al dente.

While you are cooking your spaghetti, whisk the egg with grated pecorino cheese and lots of freshly ground pepper. (For most palates, if you salt the pasta water sufficiently and given that pecorino and pancetta are already quite salty, you need not season the sauce with salt.)

Separately, in a skillet, sauté the cubed guanciale or pancetta in olive oil (or, if you really want to be authentic, lard) over moderate heat until the pancetta fat is translucent and just beginning to brown a bit. You do not want the pancetta to become crispy.

Once the spaghetti are cooked al dente, drain them (but not too well) and pour them into the skillet over very low heat. Make sure there is a bit of pasta water clinging to the pasta; if not, add a ladleful from the pasta pot. Mix well and then add your egg mixture and mix again. Keep mixing until the eggs just being to thicken and form a creamy sauce that clings to the pasta. If you prefer (and these days I tend to like my carbonara this way) or if you are worried about contamination, you can continue a bit longer until the eggs actually set. In either case, remove from the heat as soon as it just bit less done than you want, as the eggs will continue to cook from the residual heat of the pasta.

Serve immediately in warm pasta plates, with additional pecorino and ground pepper for those who want some.

Notes

There are a number of stories about the origins of this dish. The word carbonara refers to a carbonaio, meaning coal miner or charcoal worker. (Both charcoal and coal are called carbone in Italian.) So one story goes that the name of the dish means ‘coal miner’s spaghetti’ or ‘charcoal worker’s spaghetti’, presumably because it was popular among them. The story is buttressed by the fact that the dish is said to have come not from Rome proper, but in the hills outside the city. Others say that the ‘coal’ in the name is a reference to the abundant ground pepper that is characteristic of the dish.

Still another story has it that the dish has American origins, at least directly, a result of Romans eating the bacon and eggs rations they got from American troops during World War II—which is why it is arguably acceptable to substitute American bacon for the pancetta. The smokiness of American bacon usually gives Italian dishes an ‘off’ taste, but in this case it works very nicely, marrying well with the piquancy of the ground pepper. However, since fettuccine alla papalina, which as mentioned is a variant on carbonara, predates the war, I wonder about this story. It does seem , however, that the dish only became popular in the post-war period.

The ratio of egg to pasta is a critical component of the dish, of course, but funnily enough, recipes vary wildly on this score. I find that a ratio given here of roughly one medium egg to 100g of pasta—which, among other things, is easy to remember and allows for making a single portion—is a workable rule of thumb. But most recipes calls for just under one egg per 100g (usually something like 3 eggs for 400g) and some recipes calls for as little as one egg per 300g. The variable size of eggs may (partially) explain the differences. In any event, one advantage of the technique described in this post is that is forgiving; if you have a lot of egg, just keep mixing until the egg has thickened.

Although the basic recipe is quite well defined, perhaps more so than other ‘classic recipes’, there are some fairly subtle variations to this dish. As mentioned, pancetta or even bacon can substitute for the original guanciale. The dish can be either fairly creamy—though never ‘swimming’ in the sauce—or fairly dry. The sauteed pancetta, guanciale or bacon can either be added to the egg mixture before (this is the recipe you’ll find in Il Talismano) or after the pasta. In this case, I would go easy on the egg-to-pasta ratio or else the heat from the pasta will not be enough to cook the egg. One recipe from a great cookbook called Le specialita’ della cucina romana (Ce.di.st) calls for only parmesan and no pecorino. It also calls for adding a slightly crushed garlic clove to sauté lightly along with the pancetta or guanciale; the clove is removed as soon as it begins to color. In the recipe offered by the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, which follows the technique suggested above, additional pecorino is added to the pasta, off heat, after mixing it with the eggs just before serving.

A more radical variation is vegetarian carbonara, which substitutes zucchine for the pork (but keeps the egg and cheese). I like vegetarian carbonara, which is actually rather more apt for the summer months, and will post the recipe one of these days.

Spaghetti is the most common type of pasta to use with carbonara, but rigatoni and penne are also very good made alla carbonara. In fact, according to Le Ricette Regionali Italiane (Solares, 1995) the dish was originally made with penne, which mixed more easily with the eggs. I had fettuccine alla carbonara in a local trattoria in Trastevere once, which was very good. (But if you make it, make sure to use fettuccine and not the finer tagliatelle, which would be overwhelmed by this rustic sauce.) In each case, the technique is exactly the same.

 

Spaghetti alla carbonara

Rating: 51

Total Time: 15 minutes

Yield: Per serving

Spaghetti alla carbonara

Ingredients

  • 400-500g (14-16 oz) spaghetti
  • 5 medium eggs
  • 250g (8 oz) grated pecorino romano cheese (or a combination of Parmesan and pecorino)
  • 250g (8 oz) guanciale or pancetta, cut into cubed
  • Olive oil (or lard)
  • Salt, to taste
  • Lots of freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Cook the spaghetti in abundantly salted water until al dente.
  2. While you are cooking your spaghetti, whisk egg with grated pecorino cheese and lots of freshly ground pepper. (For most palates, if you salt the pasta water sufficiently and given that pecorino and pancetta are already quite salty, you need not season the sauce with salt.)
  3. Separately, in a skillet, sauté the cubed pancetta in olive oil (or, if you really want to be authentic, lard) over moderate heat until the pancetta fat is translucent and just beginning to brown a bit. You do not want the pancetta to become crispy.
  4. Once the spaghetti are cooked al dente, drain them (but not too well) and pour them into the skillet over very low heat. Make sure there is a bit of pasta water clinging to the pasta; if not, add a ladleful from the pasta pot. Mix well and then add your egg mixture and mix again. Keep mixing until the eggs just being to thicken and form a creamy sauce that clings to the pasta. If you prefer (and these days I tend to like my carbonara this way) or if you are worried about contamination, you can continue a bit longer until the eggs actually set. In either case, remove from the heat as soon as it just bit less done than you want, as the eggs will continue to cook from the residual heat of the pasta.
  5. Serve immediately in warm pasta plates with additional pecorino and ground pepper if you like.

For the most authentic version of this dish, use guanciale, cured pork jowl. If you can't find pancetta or guanciale, bacon can be substituted.

http://memoriediangelina.com/2014/03/02/spaghetti-alla-carbonara/
FrankSpaghetti alla carbonara

Comments

  1. Pingback: The Italian Pantry | Memorie di Angelina

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  4. Claudia

    This is a dish near and near to my heart. I get very upset when cream is added! (What? It’s not rich enough?) This is the only recipe where I chance raw eggs – the cooked pasta has always cooked them! You have dished this up beautifully! The history of the dish is icing on the pasta!

  5. PolaM

    Another favorite. BTW I know it is not quite traditional, but a splash of milk (no more than a table spoon per egg) keeps the eggs quite creamy even if you cook them a bit longer.

    1. Author
      Frank

      Sounds intriguing—I’ll have to try that next time I make carbonara and see how it comes out… Thanks for the tip!

  6. dianeuk

    Thank you for confirming my constant cry that carbonara doesn’t have cream!!! one establishment I ate in assured me that the carbonara was authentic as it had said 3 cheese sauce on the packet!!!!!!

  7. Yi @ Yi Reservation

    Hello Frank,

    Thank you for stopping by my blog so I could find your fantastic blog!!

    Thank you for such as detailed recipe and the history behind this dish. I just bought pasta machine last year and I have been trying to make pasta from scratch as often as possible. I will be coming to your blog very often for pasta recipes!! Thanks again!

    1. Author
      Frank

      Hey Yi! Thanks so much for stopping by. And thanks for the kind words about the blog. I just discovered yours. It’s now on my Feedly and I’m looking forward to visiting often!

  8. Ciao Chow Linda

    Frank – Once again, you’ve demonstrated how you are the go-to person on classic Italian dishes such as this. Using cream in this dish would be sacrilegious – it doesn’t need it – it’s so good on its own. Your dish looks perfect – and of course you know I love your dinnerware!

    1. Author
      Frank

      Thanks so much Linda! Couldn’t agree more. Cream is not just unnecessary, it really mars the dish.

  9. Paola Lovisetti Scamihorm

    Great recipe Frank and really authentic. Sometimes you find Carbonara with the addition of cream but this is not authentic. You are a specialist of Italian cuisine. Bravo!

  10. Cara and Stefano

    An absolute favorite classic! Thanks for setting the record straight on no cream, Frank. The trickiest part is definitely getting the eggs right. Stefano’s the carbonara guy our household. I can never quite get it to come out the way he can.

    1. Author
      Frank

      It takes a little practice and talent, Cara, as you know. If he’s got the technique down pat, then hats off to Stefano!

  11. Paolo (@quatrofromaggio)

    Frank, great read and plenty of useful information as always. I loved how you compared the slight variations of the recipe as given by major Italian reference books. As with every traditional recipe, the quantities and technique are not set in stone, but the “space” of the dish is still very well defined in Italy. And, as you say, cream or chicken are not in that space!

  12. lisawatson182812531

    You can tell a true Italian cook when it’s someone who doesn’t put cream or vegetables (or CHICKEN??? I didn’t know that was even a dish!! :) in spaghetti alla cabonara. Great explaination!

    1. Frank Fariello

      Thanks, Lisa! Well, you know, I do have a grudging admiration for the creativity of some imitators of Italian cuisine—if nothing else, it provides a good source of humorous stories. ;=)

  13. Suzi

    I made this dish in a vegetarian version using smoky flavored tempeh and egg replacement. It turned out fabulous. Thanks for your informative post as I too thought that this dish was made with cream. Love it!

  14. Danger

    Dinner tonight! Being aware that carbonara dishes with cream are imposters, I've been looking for the perfect non-cream recipe. Thanks!

  15. Anonymous

    Ciao Frank, I accidentally stumbled onto your site,Memorie di Angelina, dedicated to your wonderful grandmother during a session on facebook. My recipe to your “Spaghetti alla carbonara” is very similar. It has always been one of my favorite and easy go to recipes in my repertoire. Thank you so much for this delightful epicurean blog. Your culinary knowledge and historical antidotes are a good read. Grazie Josie

  16. madebymel

    I have always avoided authentic carbonara because of the raw egg factor. I think your version looks like a great alternative though. Very informative post!

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